Judge Joel Pearce takes a look at this out-of-the-ordinary Holocaust documentary.
When all around them turned to hate, the people of one small village turned to their hearts.
Most Holocaust movies focus on horror and suffering—justifiably so, considering the Holocaust is one of the darkest events of the last century. Most documentaries and feature films are made with the hope that we will never forget these horrors, and will fight such injustice in the future. Although The Children of Chabannes covers a much brighter, uplifting piece of the story, its message is just as meaningful and perhaps more useful.
Facts of the Case
In the unoccupied southern half of France at the outset of World War II, Jewish refugee children were brought together into a boarding school and closely integrated with the small farming community of Chabannes. Against all odds, most of them survived the war and moved on to lead full and happy lives. Filmmaker Lisa Gossels—the daughter of one of these children—accompanied her father to the Chabannes reunion in 1996. There, she collected the memories of the children and their saviors, compiling an anthology of warmth and hope.
It makes sense that the Holocaust has come to represent the human capacity for evil. It is a vivid, disturbing example of what can happen when a nation is desperate and turns to extreme solutions. The thing I really like about The Children of Chabannes is its focus on the capacity for human goodness. For this small French village, much of the war could have been passed without much trouble. Had they only attempted to protect their own, they may have never faced danger through the course of the entire war.
But they didn't merely protect their own.
Instead, Felix Chevrier and a handful of teachers pressed for the quick integration of the Jewish children into their community in hopes of saving them. This is not a large-scale story, as the village of Chabannes was only able to save a handful of children, but that doesn't diminish the power and hope contained in the film. We are fortunate enough to see what has come of this handful of children, as they have grown up and had children of their own. Their lives have touched many, all thanks to the efforts of a few brave French villagers. We are quickly reminded that it wasn't only great heroic acts that occurred during the war. So much good was done by minor, forgotten people in small villages like Chabannes. While many similar stories have been completely forgotten and will never be uncovered, this is one small piece of the story that we can recall and cherish.
The threat of the war is left in the background, much as it would have been for the children who lived in Chabannes in the early years. As the film progresses, the war enters more and more into the conversation. Still, the first half of the film focuses on the good memories of staying at Chabannes, which is uplifting and heartwarming. In this way, the Jewish children become so much more than victims of racial discrimination. They are real children, growing up in conditions that we would not wish on anyone.
In many ways, The Children of Chabannes has a distinctly amateur feel. Although the footage of the Creuse countryside is beautiful, it is not unusually attractive footage. The interviews have been filmed and edited with love and care, but lack the finesse of Shoah and other Holocaust documentaries. Lisa Gossels narrates the film as though she is making a home movie, and ultimately that's what she has accomplished. Ten minutes in, though, the lack of polish simply doesn't matter. This is a delightful and human film, one that uses its simplicity to cut straight to the heart. The subjects are people I feel I would like to get to know and spend time with, not people I would like to watch give a seminar. It's a pleasant change in focus and approach, one that allows The Children of Chabannes to stand out in a crowded market of Holocaust films.
The transfer isn't any slicker than the production. The image is clean and colorful, but shows its low-budget video-based roots. The digital transfer has been made with care, and looks as good as can be expected based on the source. The stereo sound is clear and always easy to understand, but flat. My only major complaint is with the subtitles, which are burned into the print and large enough to be distracting at times.
There are few extras on the disc. There are biographies of the filmmakers, as well as a digital gallery of the documents that were used to create the film. These documents include text pages from a journal written by Felix Chevrier and drawings created by the children during their stay at Chabannes.
I don't want to make my comments sound like The Children of Chabannes is a poorly made film. It's not. It is a film made with the heart rather than the head, and that is a wonderful change of pace in a documentary. Even if you have seen numerous other Holocaust films, The Children of Chabannes is one that is worth hunting down, because it has a different story to tell and tells it in such a heartwarming, touching way. The Children of Chabannes is the antithesis to the current body of Holocaust films, yet has earned a place next to them.
Not guilty. The people of Chabannes deserve to be recognized for their incredible efforts in challenging circumstances.
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